What Los Angeles studio percussionist refers to his equipment, an assortment of over 650 percussion instruments from around the world, as his “collection”? Who keeps his standard, ethnic, and exotic collection at a storage facility known as “The Warehouse”? Whose house is more like a percussion museum, with everything from drumsticks, to silverware, to wrenches suspended in corners, doorways, and windows to change the wind into sound? Which L.A. percussionist is recognized as the first call studio player? If you answered Emil Richards to all of the above you’re correct.
Even though Emil deserves his reputation as an eccentric and diverse player and collector of percussion, he didn’t start out in that direction. As a matter of fact, he hardly started out in percussion at all. “It was an accident,” he related during our interview. “My brother was 9 and I was 6. He had been begging my father for an accordion and my father made the mistake of taking me with them to the music store. When he bought my brother the accordion I cried; naturally I wanted something, too. Finally he said, ‘Well, what do you want?’ When he said that, I immediately pointed to the first thing I saw, which was a xylophone. So for $60 we got a xylophone and 6 months worth of lessons.”
Emil grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, in the same neighborhood as Joe Porcaro. His earliest playing experience came in a band formed by a priest at a local church. By the time he was in the 10th grade Emil had joined the Hartford Symphony. He continued his study of the mallet instruments and eventually graduated to the marimba and vibes. He also studied theory, while in high school, with Asher Slotnik. Following high school, Emil attended the Hartt School of Music where he studied with Al Lepak. It was at Hartt that Emil, for the first time, did any serious work on timpani and general percussion instruments.
After two years of college Emil was drafted and spent the next 2 years in an Army band in Japan. He met Japanese musicians Toshiko Akiyoshi and Sadao Wantanabe and was able to work with them them during his leaves. When his service was completed, Emil returned to New York and in 1954 he joined George Shearing’s group. He stayed with Shearing for three years.
By early 1959 Emil had decided to move to Los Angeles. He packed his wife, son, some clothing, a vibe, and a marimba into his station-wagon and he was off for the West Coast. “I had been out to L.A. two or three years before that while on the road with Shearing.” Emil recounted. “We used to record in L.A. and I realized that there weren’t too many mallet players in the studios. There were percussionists who played a little bit of mallets; good drummers like Larry Bunker, Alvin Stoller, and Irv Cottler who were forced into playing mallets. But they were nervous about playing mallet gigs.
“While I was in L.A. recording with Shearing, I met Manny Klein. Manny, along with his brothers David and Sol, were the biggest studio contractors in Los Angeles. Manny told me to call him as soon as I got to town so I did. My first week in town I did one date. From then on I averaged one or two a week.
“There weren’t that many mallet players here, so I immediately fell in. When I came to L.A. I didn’t have any idea about getting heavily into percussion. I had studied timpani and percussion with Al Lepak, and I had been out with Shearing when Armando Peraza was the conga drummer, so I knew about that stuff but I had no real desire to play any of it.”
Emil was tempted to audition for a percussion position in the NBC staff orchestra. Although he felt confident about his mallet playing, his honesty about his lack of skill in the percussion and Latin areas cost him the job. “Loosing that job was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. It showed me the importance of learning about the other percussion instruments and it allowed me to become active in freelance work, which helped me to develop into a more versatile musician.”
Emil talked of another experience he had shortly after arriving in town. “One of my early freelance jobs was with Milt Holland. On the date the conductor came up to me and said, ‘Okay, you’ve got triangle on this part but try it on tambourine instead.’ I told him I didn’t have a triangle or a tambourine! Milt came over and loaned me the instruments. After the take he told me that when I went down to the Union hall to pick up my paycheck it’d be a good idea to go across the street to Professional Drum Shop and pick up the instruments that I had been asked to play. I said, ‘Man, are you kidding? I’m a mallet player. I’m not getting into that jive!’
“A few years later. Milt saw me on a job where I had all my standard percussion instruments and a bunch of instruments that I had collected. He said. ‘Hey Emil, remember when you first came to town…?’ Now I give the advice he gave me to other percussionists. I even go further and add what Larry Bunker taught me; buy the best of everything. In our business you can go two months without touching the congas. Then, all of a sudden, you have a week where you play nothing but hand drums. Consequently, having the best instruments helps you sound the best with the least amount of effort.”
Throughout the ’60s and ’70s Emil continued to expand his collection and develop his reputation as a global percussionist. In 1962 he went on a world tour with Frank Sinatra, and during this tour he started amassing his collection of ethnic instruments. Many of the more exotic instruments were collected while Emil was working with such performers and composers as Harry Partch, Stan Kenton, and Don Ellis. In 1974, Emil again toured the world, this time with George Harrison.
Over the past few years Emil has been involved in the music for TV shows like Kung Fu, Star Trek, Roots, Shogun, and Masada; such movies as The Stunt Man and Escape To Victory; and commercials for McDonald’s and Taco Bell. With his wife. Celeste, Emil co-authored a series of books for Award Music that deal with making music and musical instruments from commonly found objects. These books are geared to younger music lovers. In addition to two books he wrote for mallet instruments, which are published by Try Publications. Emil has written two books that are available through his own publishing company. Underdog Publications (2100 Canyon Dr.. Hollywood, CA. 90068). Exercises on the Vibes and Marimba for the Advanced Player contains over 500 two and four mallet reading exercises. Range Finder for the Percussion Seeker is a catalog of Emil’s 650 standard and not-so-standard percussion instruments and their ranges.
Most recently Emil has lent his talents to the Roger Kellaway Cello Quartet, The Orchestra, and groups with vibist Tom Collier and guitarist Tommy Tedesco. Because he is known for his knowledge and ability, Emil is constantly besieged by other percussionists, composers, and even inventors. “There are so many great things (for percussion),” says Emil, “It’s unfortunate that not all of them can be profitably produced. There’s a lot left to do. It’s a dilemma. I want to get involved but I have to learn how to say no.”
Other players are always on the phone trying to find out what new gizmo Emil came up with on his last trip, whether it was to India, Japan, or the local junk yard. “Composers want new sounds, too, but they’ve been writing for the other instruments for hundreds of years and they’re still finding new colors when they combine one instrument with another. When they write for percussion, though, the sound’s got to be right out front. They haven’t considered combining percussion sounds to create new colors. That area hasn’t been tapped yet.”
As versatile as Emil has allowed himself to become, he would still pick mallets as his strongest, and favorite, area. When there are enough percussionists on a job Emil prefers to cover the mallet parts. As he related, “Each percussionist, no matter how diversified, has his ‘forte.’ The other things are okay, but not as good. A few guys can do it all but after traveling around the world and hearing the best of every percussion instrument. I’d have to stick with mallets as my specialty.
“I don’t consider myself the ‘hot’ Latin player. I feel comfortable playing Latin drums but it’s not my strongest area. Every player has to find what he feels best at. He should pick the instrument that he likes to play the most.” Some players don’t get any further than that. Many don’t need to. But. as Emil would agree, it is not a question of specialization as much as it is a matter of survival. Obviously, the more skills a player has, whether it be on one instrument or 650, the better chance he has to be successful in the music business.
How does a player become a well rounded musician? Where does he start, and when does he stop? Perhaps, as Emil’s great success has indicated, the important factor is to continue once you get going. “You start,” explained Emil, “by picking an instrument in the percussion family that you like to play the most. That should be enough. There’s a lifetime in each instrument. My theory teacher, Asher Slotnik, used to tell me that he’d be a student ’till he died. That message stuck with me.
“Even though I’ve got over 600 instruments in my collection, I could happily spend the rest of my life just shaking a tin can. There’s a world in that. Unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury so we have to do the best we can. You have to be a student until you die because your whole lifetime spent trying to be proficient is not enough. Stop? I hope I’ll never stop!”
Emil feels that college is a good place for percussionists to expand their skills. Universities offer a variety of resources, training, and experience to developing players. “Each college works a different way. Joel Leach (at Cal State Northridge) has 25 to 30 percussion majors; Ken Watson (at USC) accepts only 8 or 9 a year. But, like most, these schools are geared towards orchestra or solo percussion performance. The curriculum is based on the concert area. That’s well and good for string players because there are a multitude of them in an orchestra. For percussionists that’s not the most realistic way to go.
“John Bergamo (at Cal Arts) has a different approach. He puts the emphasis on ethnic percussion instruments, not standard repertoire. I think that’s a marvelous approach. You almost wish that you had 8 years of going to school so you could learn 4 years of what people are teaching at traditional schools and 4 years of what John gets across.
“Regardless, colleges should bring in outside, more diversified percussionists to give lectures. There should be more exposure of other than standard percussion. I’d even consider taking a year off to do clinics. Indian, African and Latin drumming, improvising, studio requirements; these are all areas of interest to contemporary percussionists.
“My teachers made me learn what was practical; not so much what was educationally accepted as being correct. Some guys get intimidated if they don’t feel that they’re ‘legitimately’ doing the right things. The sound on the playback is what I’m concerned about. I can only approach teaching from that point of view—being realistic and practical; acknowledging the possibility of traditional, as well as other, situations.”
Another area, more practical than traditional, that Emil feels is neglected is that of sight reading. “Reading is an area that always bogs down and I can’t understand why. I’ve gone to recitals and heard a guy play and it’s beautiful. He’s good on everything until you ask him to play a G major seventh chord or sight read a piece of music. Then it’s like he never looked at the instrument in his life.
“(In the studio) you damn well better be a good sight reader. More often than not the only time you’re ever going to get to play a piece of music is when the red light is on. You just finished cue M-l and now you’re going on to cue M-2. It’s 4 pages long and you have 7 percussion instruments that you didn’t have on the first cue to roll into place underneath the microphones. The composer can’t wait 5 minutes for you to set all that up so he’ll say, ‘We’re going to rehearse the orchestra; let the percussion just set up and when you’re ready we’ll make a take.’
“I don’t need my instrument to practice music. All I have to do is look at the paper so I can hear what’s going on (in my head). To me, that’s what reading is all about. It’s first developing your ear. I’ll lay my music down on the instrument I’m rolling into place and as I’m moving it in I’m following the music. I haven’t played a note but I know what’s going on.
“Musicians, in general, don’t hear what they read. You have to train your ear to be able to hear what you read on a piece of paper. When you read in a book that a cat got run over by a milk truck you see that scene in your mind. It should be the same thing when you look at a piece of music.
“You damn well better be able to do that or when the red light goes on you’re going to make a big, fat, mistake which could have been avoided.”
In addition to his recording work Emil is also respected for his abilities in live performances. He finds himself a bit confused, however, by the present direction of auxiliary percussion. “Percussionists with rock groups and big bands are now surrounding themselves with an array of percussion instruments. In the course of each tune they are determined to play almost every one of those instruments at the expense of not even keeping an 8 bar phrase. The guy is trying to show how many pieces of equipment he can pick up and put down in the course of a tune.
“What is it to have the audience say. ‘Boy, he sure can play a lot of instruments”? Why does a guy have to play 5 or 6 rhythm instruments during the course of a tune when he’s never really gotten off the ground with any of them?’ He loses his role in the band; he’s no longer part of the rhythm section.
“The percussionist is the salt and pepper of the ensemble. There’s a difference between color and rhythm instruments. When it comes to color, a couple of runs on the bell tree, here and there, are fine. But when he’s playing a rhythm instrument and he plays 4 bars on the cowbell, and 6 bars on the tambourine, and 8 bars on the timbales, and 16 bars on something else, to me that’s not musicianship or even showmanship: that’s just lousy choreography.
“He’s no longer a rhythm player. He’s lost his direction; he’s over spicing the arrangement. It becomes distasteful. I don’t think that’s a healthy direction for the percussionist to be taking. On a live show he’s not so much the salt and pepper player that he would be on a record. He should be part of the rhythm section.”
Emil admits that it’s not so much the amount of equipment that’s the problem as the way the equipment is being used, or rather, misused. He further advises percussionists to keep some surprises; “Don’t hit everything you have in every tune. It doesn’t make for the best sound and it certainly doesn’t make the group swing.”
As a possible answer to this problem. Emil is seriously considering mounting a campaign to add an additional percussionist on live jobs. This would allow one player to concentrate on playing the rhythm instruments without worrying about having to switch instruments every 16 bars. The other player would be free to take care of the coloration effects. This, too, would have to be done with discretion and taste.
“For the future, the percussion area ought to look forward to having two or three percussionists on every job. Believing in reincarnation I’d like to come back as an octopus. Then I’d have enough arms to cover everything. But until I do, let’s hire another guy. Color changes have to be made, but, instead of having five or six doubles, I’d be glad to walk away with one or two if I could have a couple of “compadres there helping me do a better job.”